Seven Critical College Access Tips for Undocumented Students

With the Dream Act not yet back on the table, I get more questions than ever about how to help undocumented students navigate the college-bound process in the U.S.  With many thanks to my contacts in admissions offices across the country, I want to share seven important tips for current and future undocumented high school graduates so they can prepare for college with knowledge.

  1. Non-resident tuition exemptions. Nine states* currently have laws that allow eligible non-residents, including undocumented students, to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.  Those states are California (AB 540, 2001), Illinois (HB 60, 2003), Kansas (KSA 76-731a, 2004), Nebraska (LB 239, 2006), New Mexico (NMSA 1978, Ch 348, Sec21-1-1.2, 2005), New York (S 7784, 2002), Texas (HB 1403, 2005), Utah (HB 144, 2002) and Washington (H.B. 1079, 2003).  Beginning in 2012, Rhode Island joins the list, and in 2013, California’s own Dream Act ups the stakes by allowing students to receive financial aid.If you live in one of those states, to be eligible, you must:
    • have attended high school for a certain number of years in that state,
    • have graduated from high school or obtained a GED in the state, and
    • if you are not yet a permanent resident, sign an affidavit promising to apply for permanent residency whenever you become eligible to do so.

    *Oklahoma rescinded SB 596 in 2008.

  2. State college admissions. The issue is not whether you can or cannot apply to a state college or university (you absolutely can).  It is how you will be classified as an applicant.  And that matters mainly due to the tuition and fees you will be required to pay.  If your state does not offer non-resident exemptions as listed above, then you will be considered either as an out-of-state or international applicant, both of whom are charged far more to attend.
  3. Private college admissions. Private institutions will classify you either as a U.S. or an international student applicant.  This does not affect what you pay; for the most part, private colleges and universities charge the same tuition to everyone who applies.  What it can affect is your applicant pool – many private colleges have far few spaces open for international students if that is how you’re categorized.  So you are in a way more competitive pool.  Also, admission for U.S. applicants often is “need-blind,” which means they will accept you regardless of how much financial assistance you need.  But international admissions policies certainly may take need into consideration when reviewing your application.  Start with a phone call to the campuses you’re applying to – use the phone number right there on their CLIC pages.  For you high achievers, great news!  Most of the elites/Ivys welcome and fund undocumented applicants, as do many of the excellent small privates across the country.
  4. State college financial aid. Again, the issue here is not whether you qualify for financial aid.  Unless you are in Texas (where state aid is available), you are not eligible for any forms of government aid, including grants, loans and work-study.  What matters here is if the state colleges you are accepted to have any additional private aid available, and that varies significantly from school to school.  From private donations to student and alumni fundraisers to local communities chipping in, there may be money to help you make up the difference – so don’t give up before you call and find out for yourself!
  5. Private college financial aid. Whether you are documented or not, the biggest mistake you can make is to skip applying to private schools because you “can’t afford to go.”  Yes, these schools cost gobs of money.  But they also have gobs of money.  When a private university accepts you, they often commit to meeting all of your demonstrated need.  They will come up with a package for you.  They may want you to complete a FAFSA, which could be risky.  Or they may just have a don’t ask/don’t tell policy where you leave citizenship information blank on your forms or never submit the financial statement, and they process you anyway.  For private universities, just pick up the phone, call financial aid and say, do you have money for undocumented students?  They absolutely will tell you yes or no, and what kind.
  6. Private scholarships and other financial aid. On The CLIC, you can be matched to scholarships that are available to you as an undocumented student.  Separately, you also may be able to get a loan if a citizen co-signs for it (which is where family members who have their papers in order will help).  And you can always raise money yourself or with friends towards your college funds.  If people are worried about turning over cash to a teenager, send a letter to everyone in your community with your student ID number after you register and ask people to write checks straight to the Bursar’s Office in your name (check with your college first to see if there is a different process for additional payments).
  7. Possible future roadblocks. Once you are accepted to a college, here are a few additional scenarios to be aware of:
    • Overseas studies. You may not be able to study abroad if you don’t have documentation yet to re-enter the U.S.  As an alternative, consider transferring one semester to a campus in a different region of the country (check for resources for undocumented students first!)
    • Background checks. Certain programs of study and professions, such as health and education, may require background checks that you must provide documentation to clear.  As an alternative, look at research science rather than medicine or pursue an advanced degree which may allow you to get a work visa later as an instructor or professor.
    • Across-the-border field trips. At schools along the northern and southern borders of mainland U.S., courses may schedule day trips into Canada or Mexico that you may not be able to attend.  As an alternative, request to prepare an online assignment for the course covering similar research.
    • Standardized test admissions. For some graduate level entrance exams (such as the GRE), if you are classified as an international student, you may be required to produce a passport to enter a test center here in the U.S. For U.S. students, a driver’s license or state ID is sufficient.  If you can obtain a driver’s license or a state ID in your state (i.e., New Mexico, Washington, Maryland and Hawaii), do so.  Consult with a MALDEF resource if you have any concerns before completing official documentation.

Getting into and through college in the U.S. as an undocumented student is not only possible, it is commonplace.  As in thousands of students do it.  The unsettling question is…what do you do after you graduate?

Many of you will choose to continue into graduate work, remaining students and waiting out immigration law changes.  Others may return to your communities to try to work invisibly.  Others will find work and seek employer petitions for work visas.  As tough as those are to get, know this: a science/technology/engineering/math major and/or an advanced degree remain your best bet to qualify for visas or permanent resident status (unless you leave the country long enough to obtain specialized management level experience).

As an undocumented student, whatever grade you are in, nothing will be more useful to you than superb grades, strong test scores, public service and at least one long-term commitment through high school (sports, debate, etc.).  Get competitive – and academically empowered – enough to get into private schools, seek an advanced degree in a STEM field and begin seeking work where you are in demand.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it is also the best route for documented students in this country. As I always tell students at CLIC assemblies, “If I told you to do one thing for FREE, and you’ll get a million dollars, would you do it?” “Yes!” they always yell. “Get good grades,” I say.

Now go check your My Communities widget on your CLIC page to see what support programs are a match for you – and search for more.  Because if you think it’s going to be a lot of hard work to get through college as an undocumented student, imagine what those four years will look like if you don’t go.  I invite everyone to read this astonishing article about an undocumented UCLA student to see what perseverance looks like.  What if she had known about private college policies and outside aid when she was applying? Well, she didn’t. But now…you do.

As always, share your own recommendations and experiences below!

DMA is the CEO of The CLIC, the revolutionary new site where students can powerfully plan for college and institutions can effortlessly recruit students from a single home page in our FREE interactive network. CLIC students can connect to college matches, scholarship searches, college access programs and the nation’s first master calendar of all college-related deadlines and events, with streaming video tips and much more, at